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New Mexico archaeologist worked ‘ahead of the bulldozers’

November 20, 2018

Stewart Peckham, who helped pioneer highway archaeological preservation projects in New Mexico and who some dubbed “Mr. Archaeology,” died in Mount Vernon, Ohio, last week at the age of 91 of natural causes, his nephew said.

Peckham, who first moved to New Mexico in 1949 and worked in state archaeological preservation from the mid-1950s into the mid-1980s, worked in a variety of roles for the Laboratory of Anthropology and the Museum of New Mexico.

He also served as state archaeologist for a time.

“He seemed to be constantly involved in field excavations,” said Eric Blinman, director of the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies. “He was always out there, but sometimes he was just a contractor, sometimes chief or supporting archaeologist, and sometimes he would be doing something else. He wasn’t so well career-oriented that he grabbed a title and hung onto it.

“What mattered to him was being out in the field.”

Peckham, who was born in Albany, N.Y., in 1927, served in the U.S. Army near the end of World War II and then relocated from New York to New Mexico to study archaeology at the University of New Mexico, friends said. One of his mentors and teachers there was the late Florence Hawley Ellis, who directed a number of archaeological field schools in the Southwest at that time.

He joined the Laboratory of Anthropology in the mid-1950s, at a time when the department began working with the state Transportation Department to make it aware of the state’s archaeological history and heritage as road projects commenced.

“Basically, what he did was work quickly ahead of the bulldozers on every highway project,” said friend and co-worker Daisy Levine, who first began working with Peckham at the Laboratory of Anthropology in 1977. “If he found anything he needed to study, he would conduct a quick and cheap archaeological survey. He had the responsibility of deciding what was going to be preserved or not. And he was a one-man program at that time.”

Among other sites, Peckham played a role in surveying and researching the Chuska Valley in the northwestern part of the state and the Abiquiú and Cochiti Dam regions. He became an authority figure on Pueblo pottery and ceramics, and in 1990, published the book From This Earth: The Ancient Art of Pueblo Pottery.

Blinman said one of Peckham’s best traits was his “near photographic memory.” Levine agreed, saying Peckham had “all the facts and figures of his research at his fingertips. People would always comment on his memory. You could ask him about any past field project he conducted and he could tell you every detail about it.”

She said Peckham never discussed why he was so passionate about his job, but it was “all consuming for him. It was his life.”

Blinman said Peckham had an offbeat sense of humor. When complaining about the lack of lab funding for archaeological projects, Peckham told coworkers looking for paper clips to “go out to the parking lot to find them” rather than buy them, Blinman said.

Levine said many people saw Peckham as a gruff man, but she always found him “funny and generous and caring … but he wasn’t known as a warm person.”

Though Peckham married and later divorced, the union produced no children, said his nephew, W. Stewart Peckham of Ohio. He said his uncle moved from New Mexico to Ohio earlier this year.

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